BALTIMORE (105.7 The Fan) -- Frank Robinson passed away on Thursday after a long battle with bone cancer. He was 83 years old. Robinson lifted up the lives and careers of other former baseball players and the game itself, and his death has weighed on the hearts of many.
Here, those who played with, were managed by, and covered Robinson with the Baltimore Orioles share their recollections of the MLB icon.
Jim Palmer is one of the five other Orioles who is commemorated in the team’s statue garden in the bullpen picnic area. He played with Robinson from 1966-1971, and he was able to take in everything that made Robinson such a special figure. Through it all, the most important thing for Palmer was that Robinson was trailblazer for many black baseball players and managers.
“He was a marvelous guy,” Palmer said. “I think the one thing – if you read most of the headlines today – first African-American manager. He did his due diligence. He went to Puerto Rico and managed and it wasn’t like some guy just because, ‘You know what? I’m a great player, I happen to be black or African-American, I think I should manage.’ No.
“He went down, I played for him one year, Reggie Jackson played on one of those teams, Don Baylor played on one of those ball clubs. Not only did he help us win games and change baseball in Baltimore, but just think of the impact he had – not only on the players that he had a chance to interact with, but if you’re an African-American player and you came up and saw what Frank Robinson was able to do, along with Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, you’re going, ‘Boy, maybe I’ll choose baseball.’ And what a career he had.”
Former Orioles pitcher Ben McDonald learned a great deal about the Orioles from Robinson. McDonald, after he was selected from LSU in the 1989 MLB Amateur Draft, didn’t have a clear vision of Baltimore’s baseball history. Robinson became his first manager and showed him the ropes.
“I didn’t know a lot about the history of the Baltimore Orioles, to be honest with you,” McDonald said. “We didn’t have CableVision until I got into high school where I live. On CableVision, the only thing that we ever got was TBS and WGN. I grew up as a National League -- Braves, Cubs fan. It was very rare on Sunday Night Baseball that you ever see the American League teams and the Baltimore Orioles.
“When I first signed with the Orioles, I did not know a whole lot about the history. But it didn’t take long with Jim Palmer around the clubhouse and Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson managing, with Boog Powell coming along – you started to grasp a lot of the history. I had to do a little bit of research and talk to people to really figure – I knew Frank was a good player, I knew he was in the Hall of Fame, but I didn’t realize how good he was.
“He was the only guy to win MVP in two different leagues and was the Triple Crown [winner> in ’66, and when he came to the Orioles, he really was that piece of the puzzle that they needed to get them over the top and he would be a big part of why they would go on to win two World Series when he arrived in Baltimore.”
Boog Powell played with Robinson on the Orioles from 1966-1971. During those times of great success, the Orioles held each other accountable in a fun way. Robinson, donning a mop on his head, was the “judge” of Baltimore’s “Kangaroo Court.”
“All of a sudden, Frank’s sitting over by the shower door and he’s got this funky mop on, that he got out of the corner – it was a clean mop, by the way,” Powell said. “He wore this thing like an English judge or an English whatever.
“It was only when we won, and you could bring any case up you wanted. All of the ballplayers were free to bring up a case in the first five minutes after the game after we won, the locker room was closed to the press and the press weren’t really crazy about that. It was our deal, and there wasn’t anybody that was going to change that.”
Former Orioles outfielder Joe Orsulak played on the second-worst team in the franchise’s history in 1988. Baltimore went 54-107 and had to make great changes in the next season. Robinson took over in the middle of the 1988 campaign and slowly began to change the culture of the team.
“Frank was tough,” Orsulak said. “I think he was easier on the rookies because they were a little more fragile, so to speak. He didn’t want to ruin them, but the veterans – we were a little hardened. He had high expectations, and when you didn’t do well, it wasn’t hard to see that Frank wasn’t pleased.”
Former Baltimore Sun columnist and current PressBox columnist Jim Henneman covered Robinson during his time in Baltimore as a player and as a manager. Over the years covering Robinson, Henneman was able to get to know him much better, including learning about what Robinson's biggest Baltimore regret was.
“The one thing about it that he regrets is his time here was too short,” Henneman said. “What we tend to forget is he got traded out of necessity to make room for Don Baylor, and it’s truly interesting because it was like trading for a clone. If you get a Frank Robinson clone, it would be Don Baylor. Don was as good of a player as Frank was, and he would be the first to tell you that. But he was a clone in the way that he played the game."
Robinson will be remembered for being a hard-nosed competitor, a trailblazer, a tough manager, and a person who was defiant against racism. Robinson’s legacy will endure.
By Kyle J. Andrews